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A former Montreal resident has been branded a terrorist leader and sentenced to life in prison in China, one of the harshest punishments imposed on a dissident since the Tiananmen Square student protests.

For most of the past two decades activist Wang Bingzhang, 55, has been based in the United States, where he led political groups and issued publications seeking democracy in China. His parents and brother and sister, however, still live in Canada.

A Chinese news agency issued a terse statement yesterday revealing that Mr. Wang has been given a life sentence for terrorism. He was found guilty last month after a one-day trial behind closed doors.

The Chinese government says that Mr. Wang plotted to bomb the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, planned a campaign of bombs and assassinations in 1999, and was preparing to build a terrorist training base in northern Thailand.

"We were really shocked at the sentence," said his brother, Wang Bingwu, an engineer who lives in Toronto.

"He is innocent. I know him, and he couldn't commit those crimes."

The story of Mr. Wang's arrest is one of the more bizarre in China's recent history. While trying to meet Chinese labour leaders in Asia last summer, he and two colleagues vanished from northern Vietnam. Six months later, Chinese authorities said the dissidents had been kidnapped by unknown people who took them across the border to China and demanded a $10-million (U.S.) ransom. Chinese police said they found the three dissidents tied up in a temple in southern China.

Human-rights groups say the official version is ridiculously implausible. Ordinary kidnappers would never take their victims to China or seek such a huge ransom from three people of modest incomes, they say. They believe that Chinese agents lured the three dissidents to northern Vietnam, abducted them and took them forcibly across the border to a Chinese jail.

One of the three, Yue Wu, was later released and returned to his home in France. He said they had been lured to northern Vietnam through a series of ruses by people who are now suspected to have been Chinese agents.

"They were kidnapped from their hotel in northern Vietnam by Mandarin-speaking agents," said Timothy Cooper, international director of the Free China Movement, a U.S.-based coalition of Chinese pro-democracy groups, who said his information came from Mr. Yue.

"They were taken into a car and driven 12 miles to the border, put onto a boat and taken across the border," he said. "They were beaten in the car and again when they refused to get into the boat. It was a carefully planned operation with cars waiting at the hotel and the border."

The Chinese version of the kidnapping is "totally outlandish and utterly defies logic," Mr. Cooper said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any wrongdoing. It said Mr. Wang was "tried according to the law" and had to be punished for his crimes.

Mr. Wang's supporters say the terrorism allegations are an example of how China modifies its charges against dissidents to fit the political mood of the times. Until recently, dissidents were charged with "endangering state security" or "counterrevolutionary activities." Today, to gain support from the global antiterrorism campaign, dissidents such as Mr. Wang are accused of terrorist plots.

After coming to Canada to study medicine at McGill University from 1978 to 1982, Mr. Wang defected to the United States.

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